Some amazing feats on Backward Day

It’s the last day of January 2013, which means today is Backward Day. Similar in a way to Opposite Day we celebrated not long ago, and yet another day to rattle your comfort zone a little.

You can opt to simply have some fun – put on your clothes backward, walk backward or even (this may be a little more challenging) speak backward.

If you want to walk backwards, you should dress accordingly!(© All Rights Reserved)
If you want to walk backwards, you should dress accordingly!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Or you can take it as a serious challenge – there’s a whole range of backwards running world records to challenge. But I have to warn you beforehand – these are serious records! Imagine running the 100m in reverse, and still doing it in a time of 13.6 seconds, as Roland Wegner did in Germany in 2007. Wegner also holds the world record in the 200m, so his reversing muscles must be perfectly tuned.

At the endurance end of the scale, the world record for the greatest distance run backwards in 24 hours is an incredible 160km, run by Yves Pol from France, in 1990.

In fact, backwards running is a big thing – there are even some national backwards running associations, for example in Germany, Austria, Italy and the UK.

If you’re less physically inclined, perhaps you’d rather opt for a mental challenge. How about seeing how many palindromes (words or sentences that are spelled the same forward and backward) you can think of. What is the longest palindrome sentence you can create? As with the backwards running, people have achieved amazing feats – in 1980, David Stephens published a palindromic novel, ‘Satire: Veritas’, consisting of an incredible 58 795 letters forming a giant palindrome, while Lawrence Levine’s novel ‘Dr Awkward & Olson in Oslo’ (1986) contains 31 954 words arranged as a palindrome.

Palindromes also exist in music. For example, parts of the 3rd movement in Haydn’s ‘Symphony No 47’ are musical palindromes, where the second half of the piece is the same as the first, but in reverse. They can also be found in popular music, with bands like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Husker Du, Stone Roses and Sigur Ros having employed palindromic themes.

To get a bit more scientific – palindromes can even be found in biological structures. To quote wikipedia, “The meaning of palindrome in the context of genetics is slightly different, however, from the definition used for words and sentences. Since the DNA is formed by two paired strands of nucleotides, and the nucleotides always pair in the same way (Adenine (A) with Thymine (T), Cytosine (C) with Guanine (G)), a (single-stranded) sequence of DNA is said to be a palindrome if it is equal to its complementary sequence read backward. For example, the sequence ACCTAGGT is palindromic because its complement is TGGATCCA, which is equal to the original sequence in reverse complement.”

As you can see, the range of applications for Backward Day is almost without limit. However you choose to celebrate it, have fun!

Douglas Engelbart and the evolution of the computer mouse

We’re back to computers today, as we celebrate the birthday of Douglas Engelbart (born 30 Jan 1925), the American electrical engineer and human-computer interface specialist who developed the first practically useable prototype of the computer mouse.

The computer mouse has become such a ubiquitous part of a home computer setup that its quite difficult to think back to the time when computers didn’t come stock standard with a mouse. Of course early command-line computers had no real need for a mouse, given that they didn’t have a graphical user interface, and there was no need for a device to select different objects on the screen.

The classic Apple mouse - a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.(© All Rights Reserved)
The classic Apple mouse – a masterpiece of user-friendly industrial design.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Engelbart’s computer interfacing device, that he developed with his colleague Bill English at the Stanford Research Institute, basically consisted of a handheld ‘box’ with two wheels protruding at the bottom, pointed perpendicular to each other so that, when the device was moved along a flat surface, the rotation of the wheels translated into motion along the horisontal and vertical axes on the screen. The device became referred to as a mouse because of its size and because the electric cable running out behind the device resembled a mouse’s tail.

Even though Engelbart patented his computer mouse (on Nov 17, 1970), this was a case where the invention was so far ahead of its time that the patent ran out before the device found widespread application in personal computers. Hence he never received any royalties for his groundbreaking invention.

The mouse was actually only one of several different devices that Engelbart experimented with to enable humans to easier interact with computers, including a joystick-type device, as well as head-mounted devices attached to the chin or nose. Personally I am quite relieved that the hand-held mouse won out – imagine if we all sat around staring at our computer screens with pointing devices attached to our noses. Then again, we may not have thought it funny – if you think how absurd ear-mounted bluetooth mobile phone headsets look (a personal pet-hate of mine!), perhaps a nose-mounted computer pointer wouldn’t have been that odd…

Of course by today the computer mouse has become a complex, highly sophisticated device, with variants ranging from multi-functional gaming mice that look like something out of a science fiction fantasy, to Apple’s classic smooth and simple design masterpieces.

And all this thanks to Doug Engelbart’s visionary work more than 40 years ago.

Performing some mental gymnastics on Puzzle Day

29 January is Puzzle Day, the day to celebrate all things puzzle related.

Of course puzzles are wonderful things, created to challenge, to entertain, to confound, even to frustrate when we cannot solve them. They come in all shapes and forms – jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, soduko, three-dimensional challenges, folding puzzles, disentanglement puzzles, cryptograms, mathematical puzzles, word puzzles, mazes, riddles, lateral thinking puzzles, logical paradoxes, you name it. No matter what your specific interests, there’s sure to be a puzzle type that tickles your fancy.

Personally, I’ve never been the biggest crossword fan (somehow just never got into it), but I do quite enjoy the odd maths puzzle and I love a good 3-D challenge, especially a tough disentanglement puzzle.

Untangling intricately combined metal shapes - disentanglement puzzles can provide hours of frustrating fun.(© All Rights Reserved)
Untangling intricately combined metal shapes – disentanglement puzzles can provide hours of frustrating fun.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While puzzles are often merely used for entertainment purposes, they can also serve a more specific cause. Companies like Microsoft have been known to challenge job interviewees with logical puzzles to test their logical, deductive skills. Puzzles can also stem from real-life mathematical or logistical problems, in which case the efforts to solve them can potentially contribute to basic mathematical research.

Not only are puzzles fun – they can also be quite beneficial to your mental development.  According to a University of Chicago study, kids playing with puzzles develop better spatial skills. Puzzles also improve hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, logical problem solving ability and memory.

A recent study also suggests that people who regularly exercise their minds with puzzles are a lot less likely to develop brain plaques that are tied to Alzheimer’s disease. Other beneficial activities include reading and writing.

All research seem to agree that regularly mental exercise are as beneficial to your mind as physical exercise is to your body, and the earlier you start the better. While starting to do crossword puzzles or taking up chess after retirement may help a little, the real benefits are gained by those who start early in life.

So why not use this Puzzle Day to kick-start your daily brain-gym? Here are a couple of interesting sites you may want to visit:

Showing some appreciation for the many wonders of Bubble Wrap

Today is Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And what a weird, wacky and fun invention it is!

With cushioning provided by hundreds of regularly spaced, air-filled plastic bubbles, it not only provides a really clever and practical solution for keeping packaged products safe and secure, but I’m sure if a survey had to be done on the most addictive toys ever, bubble wrap should no doubt rank quite high on the list. I’ve never met anyone who, when left alone with a piece of bubble wrap for a few minutes, did not start popping away at the hundreds of individual little plastic-encased air bubbles. Which is weird, when you think about it, because you’re effectively rendering the bubble wrap useless, destroying the very thing that makes it useful. But it’s such fun that you cannot stop!

Bubble wrap addiction
It’s addictive! Doesn’t this just make you want to go and find a piece of bubble wrap and start popping?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bubble wrap was invented in 1957 when two inventors, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, set out to develop 3-dimensional plastic wall-paper (by sealing two shower curtains together, capturing various different shaped air bubbles between the sheets). The concept failed, but their design proved to be a perfect packaging solution. Pursuing this business opportunity, Fielding founded the Sealed Air Corporation and started marketing the Bubble Wrap® brand.

Acknowledging the compulsion of bubble wrap popping, the Sealed Air Corporation’s corporate offices is said to have ‘stress relief boxes’ – containers filled with Bubble Wrap® for employees to pop. Another cute initiative from Sealed Air is their Annual Bubble Wrap® Competition for Young Inventors, where kids are encouraged to come up with new inventions using Bubble Wrap® in novel ways outside of packaging. Some amazing inventions from these competitions have included a floating garden (floating on water with the aid of bubble wrap), a disposable, low cost cell phone holder, a wrist cushion for people suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, and “Petri Bubbles”, an inexpensive alternative to petri dishes in labs. (I told you kids make great inventors!)

An interesting fact (not verified) that I came across is that more than 250 Facebook pages are dedicated to Bubble Wrap® and its generic derivatives – more proof of the addictive appeal of this amazing product.

So go ahead, grab some bubble wrap and start popping – you know you want to!

About Thomas Crapper, the toilet guy

It’s January 27 today, which means we’re celebrating the one and only Thomas Crapper Day, commemorating the death (in 1910) of Thomas Crapper, founder of Thomas Crapper and Co, and the man largely responsible for popularising the ‘porcelain throne’. Hmmm, not the first time I’ve written about toilets

Many sources credit Crapper as the inventor of the flush toilet, but that is not the case – it was invented long before, in 1596 already, by John Harrington. Crapper was, however, a shrewd and relentless businessman who, in a time when talking publicly about toilets was considered a bit on the rude side, widely promoted toilets and sanitation, and even introduced the concept of public showrooms for bathroom & toilet fittings.

If Thomas Crapper turned the toilet into an everyday item, Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser turned it into a work of art. This is a public toilet in Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, created by Hundertwasser, which is quite a sight to behold. Apparently he considered the the toilet a special place, because it is somewhere you have time to meditate in peace. Hence his dedication to elevating its aesthetic appeal. (© All Rights Reserved)
If Thomas Crapper turned the toilet into an everyday item, Austrian artist Frederick Hundertwasser turned it into a work of art. This is a public toilet in Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, created by Hundertwasser, which is quite a sight to behold. Apparently he considered the toilet a special place, somewhere you have time to meditate in peace. Hence his dedication to elevating its aesthetic appeal.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So synonymous did Thomas Crapper become with toilets in 19th century London, that a visit to the loo started being referred to as ‘going to the Crapper’, and it has been said that this is where the slang term ‘crap’ originated. This does, however, not appear to be the true origin of ‘crap’. For an amusingly detailed account of the origin of the word, have a look at the World Wide Words website.

Still, it’s just such an amusing story that the guy responsible for popularising the toilet would be named Crapper, and it does turn “going to the crapper” into quite a legitimate phrase, doesn’t it? No wonder manhole covers in the Westminster Abbey bearing the name “Thomas Crapper and Co” have become a premier tourist site in the area!

Finding that elusive variety on Seed Swap Day

Today, the last Saturday of January, is Seed Swap Day. Since the day originated in the US, it makes sense that it takes place this time of year – the ideal time for our Northern Hemisphere neighbours to get the range of seeds, bulbs etc you need for that vege patch you’re planning, or to ensure your spring garden is a feast of colour.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere the time is not quite ideal – its approaching winter, and heading away from the growing season for most veges, flowers etc. Still, the concept is so good that it’s worth mentioning, even if we end up doing a ‘Southern Seed Swap’ later in the year, around August perhaps. Or perhaps now is the time for a winter swap (brassicas, asian greens, celery and other winter crops).

Harvest quality seeds from your vege patch this year - it's all the currency you need to source great seeds from your next seed swap.(© All Rights Reserved)
Harvest quality seeds from your vege patch this year – it’s all the currency you need to source great seeds from your next seed swap.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The whole principle behind Seed Swap Day is that people get together regionally to swap seeds from their previous year’s crop. Why buy expensive seed from commercial seed companies every year if you can source fresh seeds & bulbs from neighbours in exchange for seeds from your prize veges? Not only do you effectively get seeds for free, but its often the only way to get your hands on some rare and unusual varieties not easily available commercially. And best of all – by swapping locally, you can find seeds and bulbs from plants that are well acclimated to your climate.

Can’t find a seed swap near you? Well, maybe that’s the universe telling you this is your time to take action – pick a date, arrange a venue (perhaps a local school or church hall, or even your garden for that matter), and start getting the message out to neighbours and the wider community. Most community papers also provide space to advertise local events.

If you want to seriously get into seed saving and swapping, it’d be worth your while to learn more about best ways to store and keep seeds and bulbs. There’s some good information sources available online – check out the online Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook, for example. It’s a good idea sharing this with other interested people in your area too, to increase the knowledge base in the region over time, and to ensure everyone can bring good products to your local swap.

OK, yes, it means a bit of effort from your side, but the rewards will be so worth it. And you will have that great feeling of knowing you did something really good, promoting environmental sustainability and local economic development.

So let this year’s Seed Swap Day be your call to action. And best wishes for an abundant vegetable patch and a luscious garden!

Do the opposite!

The 25th of January is Opposite Day. Or perhaps it’s the opposite of that, making it non-opposite day, which would be just another normal day, or… but if I keep going down that track I will just get confused and start wasting precious blog space.

Anyway, so today is all about opposites – black and white, light and dark, sharp and blunt, hot and cold, fast and slow. It’s the day to acknowledge and celebrate the yin and the yang. The great thing about opposites is that the one is often critical in your appreciation of the other. As John Steinbeck once said, “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”

Appreciating opposites - black and white, light and dark, hot and cold.(© All Rights Reserved)
Appreciating opposites – black and white, light and dark, hot and cold.
(© All Rights Reserved)

A few days ago I wrote about getting out of your comfort zone in order to really feel alive, and it feels to me like Opposite Day is the perfect opportunity for doing just that.  By doing the opposite of what your automatic comfort-zone action would be, you will definitely force yourself into some uncomfortable, or at least unusual (and potentially rather amusing) experiences.

Right-handed? Then why not brush your teeth with your left hand today? And how about having breakfast at dinner time? Have a warm beer with a cold pizza. Sleep at the opposite side of the bed, or facing the opposite direction. Walk backwards. Call your job and tell them you’re taking the day off because you’re feeling healthy.

I’m sure you can think of many more fun opposites without needing to revert to anything dangerous, like driving on the wrong side of the road (not a good idea!). Opposite Day can be particularly fun when you get your kids to play along. Get them to think of things to do the opposite way – I can almost guarantee they will come up with some mind blowing ideas, simply because their minds are still completely open, and their creativity still fully intact.

Go ahead, make the most of the day – live a little (or live a lot)!

Celebrating the indulgence of pure peanut butter

So today is Peanut Butter Day. (National Peanut Butter Day again, in fact, but you know… there really seems to be so few International days in January…)

Anyway, let’s go with peanut butter, and peanuts, for that matter, for today. Certainly an interesting snack. For starters, it’s made from the peanut (Arachis hypogaea) which, despite being called a nut is in fact a member of the legume or bean family. So they’re called nuts (and you sometimes even get them when you buy mixed nuts), but they’re not nuts. That’s just nuts!

Pure peanut butter on a slice of freshly baked bread - comfort food delux.(© All Rights Reserved)
Pure peanut butter on a slice of freshly baked bread – comfort food delux.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Peanuts are used in many ways (eaten raw, roasted, made into peanut oil or flour, used in medicines), but none more rich and indulgent than good old peanut butter – a comfort food if ever there was one. Peanut butter is a rich source of protein, dietary fibre, vitamins B3 and E, magnesium, potassium and folic acid. It is also high in antioxidants and, though fatty, It has high levels of good, monounsaturated fat. The peanut oil in peanut butter has been reported to lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol without reducing HDL (‘good’) cholesterol.

And it contains high levels of niacin – a nutrient found to play an important role in the prevention of cognitive decline.

Not a bad mouthful, as such.

Aside from the obvious issue of peanut allergy, the downsides of peanut butter are not generic to peanuts, but rather concern the processing and additives involved in some brands. Some peanut butter brands, for example, contain added hydrogenated vegetable oils that are high in bad trans fatty acids, but this can be avoided by making sure you get freshly ground peanut butter made from peanuts, and peanuts only. Peanut butter is also said to have the potential to harbor Salmonella, but again I believe this is really only applicable to product that has not been properly handled during production, so it isn’t a generic problem either.

Thus, as long as you source responsibly produced, pure peanut butter, it seems you can pretty much snack worry-free (in moderation, of course).

Talking about worry-free snacking – people are always worried that peanut butter will make you fat. And sure enough, eating it by the tubfull certainly is likely to add up, but there are arguments that, eaten in moderation, it can actually help in weight management, as it’s rich taste and texture has been found to keep you fuller for longer than many other snacks.

Convinced? Then why not celebrate Peanut Butter Day with a chocolate-peanut butter-banana smoothie – if you can restrain yourself to a small serving (not easy!) it’s probably the simplest, most indulgent “good snack” you will taste in a while!

Celebrating the art of handwriting

It’s Handwriting Day today. National Handwriting Day, to be exact, but as I’m prone to do, I’ll just ignore the ‘National’ bit, and claim this US day for the rest of us.

Handwriting – a unique expression of personality, with stylistic nuances making each person’s writing different. Sadly, writing is an art that seems to be fast dying away as we type our way through the day. Where people used to take pride in drafting artfully crafted hand-written letters, our modern-day fingers are much more adept at finding their way across a keyboard or touch-screen.

When last did you write an entire page of text by hand?(© All Rights Reserved)
When last did you write an entire page of text by hand?
(© All Rights Reserved)

Writing some Christmas cards a while ago, I was reminded again how bad and inconsistent my handwriting has become, and how quickly my hands started getting painfully tired. If I were to subject myself to a handwriting analysis right now, I’m sure there’d be serious questions asked about my character.

At least I don’t have to feel alone in the bad handwriting department – most doctors beat me by a country mile when it comes to illegible scribbling. I’ve never been able to understand why bad handwriting appears to be a prerequisite for entering the medical profession. Yet it seems to be the case – according to a 2007 article in Time Magazine, doctors’ sloppy handwriting directly resulted in the death of no less than 7000 people in the US per year (based on a July 2006 report from the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine). According to the article, “…preventable medication mistakes also injure more than 1.5 million Americans annually. Many such errors result from unclear abbreviations and dosage indications and illegible writing on some of the 3.2 billion prescriptions written in the U.S. every year.”

If these are the figures for the US, imagine what it must be internationally!? If that is not a good argument to get doctors using tablets (tablet computers, I mean) and typing e-prescriptions, then I don’t know what is!

Whether you are a perfectly consistent scribe, or the proud owner of an illegible scribble, today is the day to celebrate your handwriting style – it’s one of the things that make you uniquely you. Perhaps Handwriting Day is just the time to make a commitment to writing more by hand – losing this special skill will surely be a terrible tragedy.

About life, personal challenges and celebrations

22 January is Celebration of Life Day. Where the day originated, or what exactly it’s original intent was, I am not sure, but I have no problem with the sentiment of it – the opportunity to be part of this roller-coaster ride called life certainly is something worth celebrating.

Of course how you choose to celebrate life is up to you – perhaps a party with loved ones, perhaps some personal quiet-time. I personally believe the best way is to do something that pushes the boundaries of your comfort zone, something that scares you, that makes life real and immediate again.

Nothing beats the feeling of setting - and achieving - a personal challenge.(© All Rights Reserved)
Nothing beats the feeling of setting – and achieving – a personal challenge.
(© All Rights Reserved)

It can be a physical challenge – climb a mountain; run further than you’ve ever run before; take up a new sport. Think Ranulph Fiennes – now there’s a guy whose entire life reads like a celebration of living.

Or perhaps you prefer a mental challenge – tackle a long-standing phobia head-on (like fellow blogger Metan’s son facing his fear of spiders); pull the plug on your safe office job and start your own business; enroll for a degree or diploma; learn a new skill. It’s all about moving out of your comfort zone, getting away from that state of comfortably numbness where you live, but you’re hardly alive.

And when you conquer that fear, reach that challenge, achieve that success, celebrate it. Celebrate life.

Start today. And put a bubbly on the ice in anticipation.